Which brings me to a second point - the Canadian dollar. Since I started planning (and booking) this trip a year ago, the Canuck Buck has devalued against most currencies about 10%. For us, this has been like a C$5,000 unexpected expense. While this external shock hasn't forced any change in our basic plans (i.e. which countries we had already planned to visit), it did wipe out a good chunk of my reserve, and has effectively eliminated some of the pricier options I was considering (such as Australia) for January and February.
In many ways, planning a Big Trip is like building a new house. You know how much money you have to start with, and that you will have to make a series of trade-offs to keep things in line (i.e. if we put nicer tile in the bathroom, we'll have to buy less expensive cabinets). For anyone who has ever built or renovated a house, you know how difficult this process can be, and how a series of little "what the hell" decisions can quickly destroy your overall budget.
For an extended trip like ours, the budget issue basically boils down to two essential elements. One, do you want to go to some places, like London or Singapore, that are several times more expensive than other places, such as Morocco or Vietnam. Two, if you're in an expensive place, are you willing to forgo many of the things you would normally do, such as stay in a downtown hotel, eat in restaurants, drink coffee or beer in cafes, visit famous sites and buy souvenirs.
I know that, for many people, the idea of travelling on a strict budget is a bit of an oxymoron. If the purpose of a vacation is to relax, enjoy yourself, and escape the daily grind, how can you do that if you're forced to be more frugal on vacation than you are in your normal daily life at home?
That's a good question. I guess my answer is that if you want to go to lots of interesting places over the course of your life, you have to be willing to stretch your limited resources. For me, the idea of a week in Rome on a budget has always been more appealing than the same week at an all-inclusive resort in Jamaica.
In terms of how they view vacations, I tend to divide people into two groups: those who want to go further into their comfort zone; and those who are willing to leave their comfort zone. In the movie "The Accidental Tourist", this difference is defined as "tourist" vs "traveller". Ursula hates when I use that dichotomy because she says it makes me sound like a travel snob, but I think it has value.
In the final analysis, I think people should do what they want with their precious and limited vacation time and dollars. Having said that, I also know that lots of people could go places they think they can't afford if they were willing to be flexible, and sacrifice a bit on luxury. (If I ever become a travel agent, this is the market I'd like to serve.) For me, I would rather eat a homemade sandwich on a city bus in London than play golf on a fancy course in Florida.
When Ursula and I started to consider options for our Big Trip a year ago, almost everything was open. We had 6 months and C$50,000 - about $275 per day for 4 people for everything. We would start in Toronto in late August, move east, and end up in Seoul by late February.
Early in this process we made plans to meet the Brandon family in Vietnam for the Christmas holidays. As a teacher, Lorry has a clearly defined 16 day break from Sat Dec 19 to Sun Jan 3. After the Brandons decided to travel via Hong Kong (in order to visit another friend), we booked a place in Hoi An, Vietnam from Wed Dec 23 to Thu Dec 31.
While it wasn't a strategic planning decision at the time, I soon realized that our plans with the Brandons neatly cleaved our 6 month trip into two parts - 4 months in 2015 and 2 months in 2016. It also meant that most of the expensive destinations I had already committed to were in 2015, and 2016 was mostly a blank slate. This division helped my budgeting process.
By August I knew we would have some free accommodation in Belgium and Holland, a very cheap week in South Africa thanks to Troy Austen's timeshare, and that John would (very generously) provide accommodation for the Beachli clan during the time I would be back in Canada. With this help, I hit my target of C$100 for accommodation per night in 2015, and I am confident my target of C$70 per night for 2016 in southeast Asia is attainable.
In terms of getting good deals on airline tickets, I feel this has been my greatest accomplishment. After spending many hours trying to understand the algorithmic logic of air fares, I realized there were almost unbelievable deals out there if one was flexible and booked well in advance. In the final analysis, I managed to book more than 50 flights over a six month period for just over $10,000, including all taxes and fees. Here is the list.
1. Toronto to Brussels
2. Brussels to Oslo (Barry, George)
3. Oslo to Brussels (Barry, George)
4. Brussels to London
5. London to Nice (Ursula, George, Molly)
6. London to Toronto (Barry)
7. Toronto to Basel (Barry)
8. Basel to Rome
9. Rome to Marrakech
10. Fez to Barcelona
11. Barcelona to Tel Aviv
12. Tel Aviv to Istanbul
13. Istanbul to Abu Dhabi/Dubai
14. Abu Dhabi/Dubai to Johannesburg
15. Cape Town to Danang
16. Ho Chi Minh to Kuala Lumpur
17. Kuala Lumpur to Seoul
Obviously the free flights to South Africa were the best deal (that's another story), but there were many other great deals along the way. Overall, this unexpectedly low cost of all air travel really helped the budget process.
I should note that in August I was able to add another C$5,000 to our overall travel budget. While closing down our two households (Ottawa and Haliburton) this summer, I realized that a series of small matters were breaking our way, and we were ahead of where I had expected back in the spring when I set the original budget. Ironically, this positive externality was simply offsetting the negative impact of another externality (the devaluation of the Canadian dollar) - a classic example of "you win some, you lose some", or as some of my friends might say, "shit happens".
So, after deducting air travel and accommodation, I could set a daily spending limit for everything else. After rounding down to create a small cushion, I calculated our daily spending budget for 2015 to be C$200, and our daily budget for 2016 to be C$100.
In another happy turn of events, a few weeks ago George and I downloaded an excellent app for travel budgeting onto his iPad. Every day, he has been faithfully inputting every expense incurred. The app keeps track of every transaction in specific categories, and even calculates currency exchange rates so everything reverts back to Canadian dollars.
And so, I guess you're wondering how we are doing with the budget after 29 days on the road. The answer is "we're doing great". During 7 days in August, we spent $1,253.48 (almost $150 under budget). So far in September, we've spent $3,964.65 in 22 days (almost $450 under budget). In total, we've spent $5,218.13 in 29 days - an average of just $179.94 per day. To be fair, I must note that friends in Belgium and Holland were generous, and yesterday's tickets to the Warner Bros. studios to see the Harry Potter film set were birthday presents for all of us from my parents. (Thanx for a great day, Mom and Dad!)
In conclusion, I'm happy. With a little help from our friends and family, we've managed to stay on budget through the most expensive part of our trip (Paris, Belgium, Oslo, Holland and London). And I want Jennifer Bruce to know I'm working hard to ensure we'll be able to afford more than a plate of spaghetti with tomato sauce and a shared glass of house red while we're in Rome...